IPTV/VoD: solving the home wiring problem
But nothing comes without its baggage, and PLC technology is no exception. Despite wide support from the likes of Linksys, Motorola, Sony, Sharp and Conexant, HomePlug AV has been plagued with false starts and politicking. Everyone wants a slice of the pie as the technology’s flexibility makes it incredibly powerful. UPA gear has seen slow uptake from major brands. Adaptors typically need to be purchased from online outlets as the regulatory position is too ambiguous for high street retails to commit to their distribution.
They are also rather costly in comparison to wireless – HomePlug 85Mbps Turbo starter kits cost just over £100/$200 for two adaptors; like other network products rarely reach anywhere near their maximum speed and they must be plugged in before surge-protection equipment to work properly. DHCP negotiation needs to be more robust to ensure connection integrity, especially when an adaptor is unplugged and plugged in again.
PLC's CSMA/CD characteristics mean TV signals can travel badly, meaning any more than 2 signals can cause problems on the same network. Offices and blocks of flats require specific configurations to avoid neighbouring networks crashing into each other. Ofcom are also yet to clearly state whether the technology’s imaginary 'interference' problem means the products need licensing/taxation of some kind.
Moving forward, we won’t want to live in houses where every room is full of big PLC adaptors connected by sprawling wires to a hub or switch. Industries give birth to products that are messy just to get them to market as soon as they can, and eventually over time they mature and tidy themselves up. The long-term future needs a much bigger, high-level plan for digital living. The likes of Microsoft and Siemens call it the 'home ecosystem', which should immediately ring alarms on anyone’s bullshit detector.
Nobody wants to digitise their home for the sake of digitising – change needs a compelling reason. Homes need to be networking environments only when applications are there that need it. Applications won’t be created for home networks until they are installed and available in a large number of early adopters’ homes. The impetus and responsibility for this needs to be from ISPs and goes back to remodelling businesses from connectivity to digital home network provision.
Many different organisations are innovating new standards and technologies that we will adsorb into our homes to power new devices and services, all designed to captivate us and secure our consumer loyalty. Video conferencing, security systems, ubiquitous internet connectivity and home automation will allow evolve as value-added services derived from broadband in the next 10 to 20 years. Our job as technologists is slowly shifting from the laboratory to the living room, as consumers only adopt technology that they have has value to them in their ordinary lives. We often get carried away with in-fighting, speculating and assuming the rest of the planet is as excited by what we’re doing as we are.
Three technologies deserve special mention when it comes to emerging platforms for home broadband innovation, xPL, uPnP and DLNA. The first, xPL (eXtremely simPle protocoL) is a simple and powerful open home automation protocol for standardising the auto-discovery and configuration interface between home devices, for example, turning down the stereo when the phone rings through on your TV. uPnP (Universal Plug and Play, not to be confused with Plug-and-play for PC products) comes as standard on many broadband routers is a set of open peer-to-peer network protocols that allows devices to seamlessly interact with each other over a DHCP-controlled IP network. Lastly, DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) is a very compelling group of technology companies aiming to promote standards for the interoperation of PCs, consumer electronic devices and mobile/handheld products.
The most amazing thing the consumer electronics industry could do at this moment in time is invest in PLC technology to make it of the nano genre rather than microprocessor it is now. PLC adaptors need to be implicitly built into all home devices so that as soon as they are plugged in, they have network connectivity and broadband access. That’s means IP addresses for TVs, set-top boxes, DVD players, doors, VCRs, kettles, fridges, laptops, lights, stereos, kitchen utensils and just about everything we can care to name. With PLC built into all devices and/or their plugs, we have limitless possibility to innovate in the home. Right now I may not want send my toaster an text message, but in the future it would be nice to control my home across the world and store environment 'presets' when I make a romantic evening dinner for two.
As triple-play reaches banal status, excitement has moved to so-called n-play or 'multi-play' services that include setups that are similar to the NTL-Virgin deal to provide 'quadruple play' services. Telecoms companies want our homes flooded with wi-fi, Bluetooth, GPRS and 3G to make all our voice communications digital as VoIP traffic. ISPs are also beginning to offer home PBX systems with their call packages to differentiate and add value to simple voice offerings.
True gadget fiends amongst us now have different phone extensions in different rooms, local dialling in every country and music on-hold. While most of us are getting to grips with video calling on Skype, super-nerds outgrew things like their TiVo years ago and now own a Slingbox so they can watch their TV when they are thousands of miles away in a hotel room somewhere.
It's easy to procrastinate by second-guessing. IPTV and home broadband networks involve massive change and uncertainty in a complex and ruthless market. One mistake is being made in our industry more than any other every day – and that is to assume that just because IPTV as a set of technologies, and as an industry, isn’t perfect straight away that it won't happen or won't sell. As long as we stand around theorising, criticising and wondering nothing gets done. We need to look past this year and look to the next five to ten to understand how it will affect us all. IPTV will mature and straighten itself out like any other field, so its time to calm down, take a breath and consider the best way to ride the wave.
Digital TX Limited is a London-based provider of technology and consultancy solutions for interactive digital television and broadband media. Alexander Cameron can be reached at [email protected]
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